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In Nogales, AG Sessions vows stand against border 'filth'

'This is the Trump era,' attorney general states; Grijalva calls AG a 'white supremacist'

In his first visit to the U.S.-Mexico border as the attorney general of the United States, Jeff Sessions outlined the Trump administration's approach to border security in martial terms, calling the border "ground zero in this fight" against criminal gangs and international cartels. 

Following a brief tour of the border near Nogales on Tuesday, Sessions held a press conference at the recently-revamped Mariposa Port of Entry in the border city, and announced that the administration would amp up prosecutions and detain "all adults who are apprehended at the border." 

"For those that continue to seek improper and illegal entry into this country, be forewarned: This is a new era," Sessions said. "This is the Trump era." 

Sessions focused on MS-13, a Los Angeles-based street gang formed by El Salvadorians in the early-1980s that became increasingly powerful in the United States and El Salvador itself. 

"Let's stop here for a minute," Sessions said. "When we talk about MS-13 and the cartels what do we mean?" Sessions asked rhetorically. "We mean criminal organizations that turn cities and suburbs into war zones, that rape and kill innocent civilians, and who profit by smuggling poison and other human beings across our borders," Sessions said.

"Depravity and violence are their calling cards, including brutal machete attacks, even beheadings" Sessions said, reading from his prepared remarks.

"It is here, on this sliver of land, where we first take our stand against this filth," said Session's speech as written. When delivering his remarks, he stumbled over that sentence, inserting "on this border" and ending with "stand," leaving off the final phrase.

U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva said that the Republican AG would find in Nogales "a community completely at odds with this administration's depiction of life on our southern border."

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"The question is not whether or not their policies meet the needs of our borderlands, but rather, will they even bother to learn what those needs actually are?," Grijalva said in a news release. "So far, the answer has been a resounding 'no.' Taking time for a photo op at a wall is not the same as taking time to understand how that wall arbitrarily splits the desert landscape, blocking local wildlife from their natural migration patterns, and scarring the ecology of the entire region. Nor is a conversation in a law enforcement facility the same as a conversation with the real men and women who call our borderlands home."

Sessions announced that he was mandating that federal prosecutors seek felony charges for people who have unlawfully returned to United States after they were deported, or if "certain aggravating circumstances are present." Federal prosecutors must also pursue those who "transport or harbor" people who have entered the country without authorization, and "where possible" charge people with document fraud and aggravated identify theft, Sessions said.

Tagging Sessions as a "white supremacist," Grijavla said after the speech that the attorney general was asking prosecutors to "actively seek opportunities to throw the book at immigrants, simply for being immigrants. But Sessions doesn't use that term – his announcement speech is littered with the term 'alien' because it further erodes the humanity of people coming to the United States."

Already Sessions has pushed back against the closure of Bureau of Prison facilities and the Department of Homeland Security has begun taking over some of those facilities for use as immigration detention facilities.

Unauthorized crossers on decline

As part of his announcement, Sessions noted that in January and February, the number of apprehensions by U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials have declined precipitously. 

"From January to February of this year, illegal crossings dropped by 40 percent, which was unprecedented," Sessions said.  In February, apprehensions dropped again, down 72 percent. "That’s the lowest monthly figure for at least 17 years," Sessions said. 

"This is no accident.  This is what happens when you have a president who understands the threat, who is not afraid to publicly identify the threat and stand up to it, and who makes clear to law enforcement that the leadership of their country finally has their back," Sessions said. 

While Sessions credited the drop to the incoming Trump administration, apprehension numbers have been decreasing year over year since 2001. In 2016, CBP reported that apprehensions were below 416,000, a number not seen since 1974. 

In the first year of the administration led by President Barack Obama, apprehensions dropped 23 percent from 2008 to 2009 and continued to decline throughout, even as the Obama administration removed or returned more than 2 million people. 

Sessions also announced that the administration was hiring 50 more immigration judges, in addition to the 25 judges the administration "surged" to the border in January to quickly pursue removal and deportation proceedings. 

"We can no longer afford to wait 18 to 24 months to get these new judges on the bench, so today, I have implemented a new, streamlined hiring plan," Sessions said. "It requires just as much vetting as before, but reduces the timeline, reflecting the dire need to reduce the backlogs in our immigration courts." 

Sessions also announced that all 94 U.S. attorney's offices would make the prosecution of assault against federal officers, including CBP officers and agents, "a top priority." 

"If someone dares to assault one of our folks in the line of duty, they will do federal time for it," Sessions said. 

It was not clear if federal prosecutors had not pursued these cases in the past. 

However, Border Patrol agents and officers with the Office of Field Operations have faced an increase in assaults in the last two years after nearly two years of declining incidents. 

From 2012 to 2014,  the number of incidents reported by CBP personnel declined nearly 33 percent from 555 to 373 incidents. However, by 2016 that number rapidly increased 56 percent. 

From 2016 to 2017, Border Patrol agents faced the biggest change in assaults rising around 143 percent, according to agency statistics. 

TucsonSentinel.com's original reporting and curation of border and immigration news is generously supported in part by a grant from the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions at the Mariposa Port of Entry in Nogales on Tuesday.

Sessions' speech

Attorney General Jeff Session's remarks in Nogales on Tuesday, as prepared for delivery and released by his office. Prior to Sessions' speech, a Justice Department spokesman noted that he "often varies from his prepared remarks during delivery":

Let me start by thanking the brave men and women of Customs and Border Protection, who not only served as our gracious hosts today, but who put themselves in harm's way each day to secure our borders and protect us.

Here, along our nation's southwest border, is ground zero in this fight. Here, under the Arizona sun, ranchers work the land to make an honest living, and law-abiding citizens seek to provide for their families.

But it is also here, along this border, that transnational gangs like MS-13 and international cartels flood our country with drugs and leave death and violence in their wake. And it is here that criminal aliens and the coyotes and the document-forgers seek to overthrow our system of lawful immigration.

Let's stop here for a minute. When we talk about MS-13 and the cartels, what do we mean? We mean criminal organizations that turn cities and suburbs into warzones, that rape and kill innocent citizens, and who profit by smuggling poison and other human beings across our borders. Depravity and violence are their calling cards, including brutal machete attacks and beheadings.

It is here, on this sliver of land, where we first take our stand against this filth. In this fight, I am here to tell you, the brave men and women of Customs and Border Protection: we hear you and we have your back. Under the President's leadership and through his Executive Orders, we will secure this border and bring the full weight of both the immigration courts and federal criminal enforcement to combat this attack on our national security and sovereignty.

The President has made this a priority — and already we are seeing the results. From January to February of this year, illegal crossings dropped by 40 percent, which was unprecedented. Then, last month, we saw a 72 percent drop compared to the month before the President was inaugurated. That's the lowest monthly figure for at least 17 years.

This is no accident. This is what happens when you have a President who understands the threat, who is not afraid to publically identify the threat and stand up to it, and who makes clear to law enforcement that the leadership of their country finally has their back. Together, we will drastically reduce the danger posed by criminal aliens, gang members, and cartel henchmen.

To that end, the President and I want to do our best to arm you, and the prosecutors who partner with you, with more tools in your fight against criminal aliens. So today, I am pleased to stand here with you and announce new guidance regarding our commitment to criminal immigration enforcement. As we speak, I am issuing a document to all federal prosecutors that mandates the prioritization of such enforcement.

Starting today, federal prosecutors are now required to consider for prosecution all of the following offenses:

• The transportation or harboring of aliens. As you know too well, this is a booming business down here. No more. We are going to shut down and jail those who have been profiting off this lawlessness — people smuggling gang members across the border, helping convicted criminals re-enter this country, and preying on those who don't know how dangerous the journey can be.

• Further, where an alien has unlawfully entered the country, which is a misdemeanor, that alien will now be charged with a felony if they unlawfully enter or attempt enter a second time and certain aggravating circumstances are present.

• Also, aliens that illegally re-enter the country after prior removal will be referred for felony prosecution — and a priority will be given to such offenses, especially where indicators of gang affiliation, a risk to public safety, or criminal history are present.

• Fourth: where possible, prosecutors are directed to charge criminal aliens with document fraud and aggravated identity theft — the latter carrying a two-year mandatory minimum sentence.

• Finally, and perhaps most importantly: I have directed that all 94 U.S. Attorneys Offices make the prosecution of assault on a federal law enforcement officer — that's all of you — a top priority. If someone dares to assault one of our folks in the line of duty, they will do federal time for it.

To ensure that these priorities are implemented, starting today, each U.S. Attorney's Office, whether on the border or interior, will designate an Assistant United States Attorney as the Border Security Coordinator for their District. It will be this experienced prosecutor's job to coordinate the criminal immigration enforcement response for their respective offices.

For those that continue to seek improper and illegal entry into this country, be forewarned: This is a new era. This is the Trump era. The lawlessness, the abdication of the duty to enforce our immigration laws, and the catch and release practices of old are over.

In that vein, I am also pleased to announce a series of reforms regarding immigration judges to reduce the significant backlogs in our immigration courts. Pursuant to the President's executive order, we will now be detaining all adults who are apprehended at the border. To support this mission, we have already surged 25 immigration judges to detention centers along the border. I want to thank personally the judges who answered the call to help us with this new initiative.

In addition, we will put 50 more immigration judges on the bench this year and 75 next year. We can no longer afford to wait 18 to 24 months to get these new judges on the bench. So today, I have implemented a new, streamlined hiring plan. It requires just as much vetting as before, but reduces the timeline, reflecting the dire need to reduce the backlogs in our immigration courts.

With the President's Executive Orders on Border Security, Transnational Criminal Organizations, and Public Safety as our guideposts, we will execute a strategy that once again secures the border; apprehends and prosecutes those criminal aliens that threaten our public safety; takes the fight to gangs like MS-13 and Los Zetas; and makes dismantlement and destruction of the cartels a top priority. We will deploy a multifaceted approach in these efforts: we are going to interdict your drugs on the way in, your money on the way out, and investigate and prosecute your trafficking networks to the fullest extent of the law.

Why are we doing this? Because it is what the duly enacted laws of the United States require. I took an oath to protect this country from all enemies, foreign and domestic. How else can we look the parents and loved ones of Kate Steinle, Grant Ronnebeck, and so many others in eye and say we are doing everything possible to prevent such tragedies from ever occurring again?

Let me finish where I started, by thanking you — the brave men and women in uniform who are at the front lines of this fight. I know we ask a tremendous amount from all of you, but know this: WE HAVE YOUR BACK and will do all we can to empower you and support you in your work.

God bless you and thank you.

Grijalva on Sessions' visit

U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva, a Southern Arizona Democrat, blasted the administration and Sessions as the attorney general made a trip to Nogales on Tuesday. Part of Grijalva's statement:

Taking time for a photo op at a wall is not the same as taking time to understand how that wall arbitrarily splits the desert landscape, blocking local wildlife from their natural migration patterns, and scarring the ecology of the entire region. Nor is a conversation in a law enforcement facility the same as a conversation with the real men and women who call our borderlands home. If Sessions would listen to the locals, he would hear how Trump's confrontational stance towards Mexico, and his proposed Border Adjustment Tax, are both toxic to cities like Nogales, where the local economy is entirely dependent on cross-border commerce. He would hear from tribal leaders about how a border wall is a direct assault on tribal sovereignty. He would hear how the Muslim ban and deportation raids that Sessions has carried out for Trump have stitched fear across this nation. Perhaps most of all, he would learn that this region is intricate and complex – solutions here require more than campaign rhetoric and a majority party in Congress willing to rubberstamp policies without concern for consequences.

If Sessions learned any of these lessons, his trip would be well worth it. But given his track record of opposing commonsense immigration reforms, and given his role as Trump's henchman in justifying deportation raids, all I can say is I do not have high hopes.